Pros: A beautiful concept performed by a talented group of physical theatre professionals and musicians.
Cons: Either I didn’t like Stravinsky’s music particularly, or the cutting up of the music took away some of the distinction of the piece.
This past week the UK celebrated William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It therefore seems fitting that I slotted into my timetable a performance of one of his most popular plays. The Rite of Spring/Romeo and Juliet presents a combination one of the Bard’s most well-known stories and Igor Stravinsky’s successful yet experimental (at the time it was written in 1913) orchestral work.
The story is told purely through the music and the actors’ physical performances. Except for muffled sighs, laughter or exclamations, no words are used. This places a lot of pressure on the actors. So often it is the script that allows the tale to be told; in this show, however, all attention is drawn to the performance and talent of the group. The cast’s skills have to be polished, otherwise the story will be lost on the audience.
There is yet another restriction on the re-telling of the tale. The piece uses wonderful skin-coloured half masks, which are produced for the show by the clearly talented Trestle Theatre Company. With clear inspiration from Commedia dell-Arte, the masks, despite their fixed features, are transformative! The performers use their mouths, the only part of the face visible when the masks are worn, to express emotions. Their bodies also are important tools for telling the story.
Many of the performers have trained at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, a physical theatre school that has produced stars for the Théâtre du Soleil and Théâtre de Complicité. Its standards are clearly very high. I was particularly taken by Nectarios Theodorou, whose Mercutio was memorable and bright. And Monika Lindeman’s transformation from Tybalt to Nurse was spectacular.
The technical side of things was simple, which was a good move considering the complexity of the other artistic aspects. The set was made up of a grand piano with a black and white frame wrapped around it, which the actors could use as a performance space and a simple set of steps. While I enjoyed the fact the team had managed to integrate the mini-grand piano into the set, its bulk made some of the scenes and movement a little clunky. And I liked the idea for the costumes, total monochrome like the set, but some felt a little messy.
I understand that the production team worked hard to reproduce the tale of Romeo and Juliet as a physical theatre piece without destroying the story, and I think they made a great effort. However, by reducing the play down to its basic storyline and slotting it into an hour, part of me felt the production squeezed out the real appeal of Shakespeare: the language. If I didn’t already know the play, I am not sure I would have understood the nuances of the story. In particular, I wouldn’t have understood that Juliet was just asleep and not dead from the poison. Nevertheless, the team have produced a concept which has the potential to expand and also to invest new meaning in classic music and plays, which is quite exciting really.
This show was not a dance production yet the performers moved like dancers. This was the best piece of physical theatre I’ve ever seen and is a great specimen for showing audiences why physical theatre should be given the time of day.
Author: William Shakespeare
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Director: An-Ting Chang and Russell Bender
Producer: Concert Theatre
Booking Until: 26 April at Blue Elephant, then touring the UK. Back in London at the Clapham Omnibus 9 – 10 May
Box Office: 020 8482 6923
Booking Link: www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk